He called on the community to make sure WellStar's 18-member board of trustees had community oversight.
In the last six months, four top WellStar executives have mysteriously parted ways with the organization. In September, the board fired Simone and Bonnie Wilson, WellStar's executive vice president and general counsel, without giving a reason why.
Randall Bentley Sr., of the Marietta law firm Bentley, Bentley and Bentley, is the chairman of the WellStar board of trustees. According to his website, he is also the solicitor for the cities of Kennesaw and Acworth.
When news of Simone's and Wilson's terminations became public, Bentley refused to give a reason, simply saying, "it was time for a change."
Following that change, Jim Budzinski was named WellStar's interim CEO, while WellStar replaced Wilson with Leo Reichert. The board expects to hire a fulltime CEO by the end of June.
Then on Tuesday, after the Journal made an inquiry to WellStar based on a tip, WellStar admitted that two more top executives had parted ways with the health system.
A WellStar spokesperson said both Dr. Richard Lopes, senior vice president and president of the WellStar Medical Group, which is in charge of the system's 350 physicians, and Ron Strachan, senior vice president and chief information officer, where no longer employed with the company as of Monday.
Again the Journal contacted Bentley to ask why the two parted ways with WellStar, but Bentley refused to return phone calls.
Lopes, who was hired in April 2010, was paid an annual salary of $562,660, while Strachan, who was hired in March 2008, was paid an annual salary of $288,766.
During the last WellStar board of trustees meeting on March 3, no mention was made of the employment changes.
Simone, who hired both Lopes and Strachan, said they are both excellent employees.
"This is extremely unusual conduct for an interim CEO to do this," Simone said. "He hired on a permanent executive vice president and general counsel, which, as an interim, that's pretty unheard of that you would put an executive VP in position unless you were sure you were going to be the permanent CEO because that's kind of handcuffing a CEO that might come on board."
Simone said that comment was not meant to disparage Reichert.
"Leo may be the best choice available, but as I say, it's highly unusual for an interim position to make that decision for an organization," Simone said. "But that's the first of what I think are the unusual circumstances. And then when you have these two individuals who were separated from the organization on the same day by an interim position, this is extremely unusual, and that's why I'm a little bit concerned."
Another source told the Journal that Lopes and Strachan were forced out because they had been discovered trying to alert board members about an alleged problem WellStar had with Medicare reimbursement funding.
Simone said he didn't know if that was the case, but if it was, an investigation was in order.
He also said he wasn't surprised to hear Lopes and Strachan were no longer with WellStar.
"I think what has happened since Sept. 2, I don't really want to stir that pot again," Simone said, pausing, before beginning to speak again. "To answer your question, yes, it is a power struggle. It is a power struggle. I was able to observe the interaction between Budzinski and each of these two individuals for quite some time long before I left. And so the decision to separate them from the organization does not surprise or shock me."
A WellStar spokesman told the Journal that Budzinski, who is paid an annual salary as interim CEO of $444,267, has applied to be the permanent CEO. The Journal asked Simone if the separation of Lopes and Strachan from WellStar had anything to do with Budzinski's future employment goal.
"I think that's a very good question, and I think that's a question that needs to be asked and answered," Simone said.
Simone said whomever the board hires as WellStar's new CEO, he or she needs to have a background in medicine.
"I think it's simple. Just look at the best organizations in the country. Geisinger. MAYO Clinic. Cleveland Clinic. Look at those. Every one of them has a physician leader. I think that would be in the best interest of the organization and the community, I do," he said.
Simone called on the community to take a more active role in monitoring what goes on at WellStar.
"Realistically, I think that it's not on the front burner of most people in the community, and right now there is no interruption in the services provided, the health care is still good, so I don't think that the full and dramatic impact is appreciated by the community yet. It will be," Simone warned. "And I think the community does need to ask the questions, just like you're asking the questions right now. Who is the board responsible to? Who has oversight of their decisions? Is there anybody? And the answer is no. They can make decisions behind closed doors, and they don't answer to anybody for those decisions. It seems to me that some more oversight by the community is necessary," he said.
After all, the county commission is in the process of putting together an oversight board for its government, he said.
"You know, it's a question that I think you, as the sentinels of the community's news, really need to ask," Simone said. "What is really happening there? Why is there such an overlap on the hospital authority board and the board of trustees for WellStar? What's going on? The point is, there is a lot that really needs to be looked at for the organization. I think there's a lot of good that we have done. I think there's a lot of fine people there. But I'm a little concerned about the direction it has taken very recently."
The Journal called Bentley to request an interview for this article. He did not respond.
WellStar has five community-based hospitals. One in Austell, two in Marietta, one in Dallas and one in Douglasville. With 11,500 employees, the health system, whose flagship is Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, is one of the largest in the nation, with revenues of $1.5 billion.